Summer 2020 may not have panned out the way we envisioned it. Scratch that. Most of 2020 hasn't gone according to plan. A running tab of offenses would include, but certainly wouldn't be limited to, scorching temperatures, social and political unrest, spiking COVID cases, a brewing hurricane season, and a Taylor Swift record no one asked for. Thankfully, a handful of local musicians have churned out pandemic efforts more palatable and inspired than Swift's critically acclaimed dud.
Some of our homegrown gems that have already amassed audiences beyond Houston's sprawling city limits have treated their fans to memorable Summer soundtracks with uplifting Soul offerings (The Suffers, "Take Me to the Good Times), heavenly vintage Funk affairs (Khruangbin, Mordechai ), and succinct political statements (Tobe Nwigwe, "I Need You To").
On this list, you'll find a handful of Summer releases from Bayou City artists at varying stages in their career making their mark on a music scene that refuses to be uprooted and defeated by outside forces (not naming any names, coronavirus). There's retro-funk, psych-synth pop, talk box electricity, and tried but true heartbreak indie selections here. However your summer played out for you personally, you might discover something here that captures it all, or helps you escape. Any which way, press play, and explore a glimpse into Houston's Summer of music as sung by Lenora, Rex Hudson, Lilly Aviana, and Frankie and the Psychosphere.
Houston may have four area codes, but it has only one Lenora. An HSPVA graduate, she’s a talent as rare as a new 713 phone number; a voice clear as the Texas sky; persona, radiant as the sun. Her latest single “Cool” is the Summer song a Houstonian dreams of. It sizzles and simmers like a backyard barbecue grill not far from the pool. It refreshes the senses like that snapping sound of opening the afternoon’s first beer. Production from Beanz N Kornbread maintains an at once classic and timeless, if not beautifully restrained, heartbeat. Lenora’s vocals here are intimate, controlled, versatile. She vacillates between conversationally rapped verses and delicately sung choruses, lyrically nodding to Houston’s Chopped and Screwed culture in the bridge. That’s what happens when you mix operatic training with Outkast, Beyoncé, and Paul Wall sensibilities.
After graduating from HSPVA in 2009, Lenora studied vocal performance at Loyola University in New Orleans where she began exploring jazz music, writing songs, and releasing mixtapes under a moniker no longer in service. She would later change her artist name to Lenora, both her middle name and an homage to her late grandmother. Lenora's performances in Miller Outdoor Theatre’s Dancin’ in the Street...Motown & More Revue garnered her attention from corporate bands and music producers, a launching point from which she gradually interwove herself into the industry and eventually landed a radio placement with her 2019 single “Relax” featuring Slim Thug.
Throughout quarantine Lenora gifted fans with virtual live sets in her series ‘The Mile High Club.’ Now she'll make room for the release of her recently completed debut full length effort produced by Polyester The Saint. Lenora says she hopes to release the album in 2020, but knows that “timing is everything.”
Says Lenora: “I feel like I'm almost a late bloomer. The reason why, there's no mistake about it. Being 28 years old, there's so much that I've experienced. There's so much that I'm not going for anymore, and it’s just in knowing who you are and standing firm in that. That's where I am. I'm standing firm in who I am as a woman, as a black woman, and as an artist. I just think that my music now is so indicative of that. It's so different; it's more confident; it's more fun.”
Rex Hudson, "Past Life"
Draw a Venn diagram: one side Gary Numan; the other, Washed Out. Rex Hudson's newest single "Past Life" should appear right there in the middle. Hudson's latest is a repeat worthy late summer jam that floats like a flamingo pool float in search of its inflatable pizza slice counterpart with its zany, understated synths, thumb over the water hose mid-song guitar solo, and ethereal, lemonade drenched vocals aching for better times.
"Take me back, living in a past life / Take me back, only for a short time," sings a reverberated Hudson in the song's chorus that never weeps where it wallows. Nostalgia’s familiar lure feels welcomed here considering how "Past Life" and its accompanying suburban apocalyptic themed music video were inspired by the pandemic.
“I had a lot of people who were close to me who were all thinking it was bullshit and said this was a conspiracy and I was like ‘I don't know about that.’... I was getting a little chastised for thinking that it was a big deal,” says Hudson, who dons various levels of PPE ranging from 3-PLY disposable masks to a hazmat suit in the song’s music video.
On the video’s concept: “[It’s] people living their lives like nothing is going on, and then there's this guy here reminding you that, you know, stay safe I guess.”
Lilly Aviana, "Cherry Pie"
While the rest of you were baking banana bread in quarantine, Houston based R&B songstress Lilly Aviana was cooking up a dessert of her own with her latest single "Cherry Pie." Her recipe? Sensuous vocal performances, stanky grooving bass lines, Uncle Tino on the retro-tinged talk box, fresh as ever production from Alexander Mishka, and start to finish slapping funk and disco undercurrents. Album art portraying Aviana as a Real Housewife of Houston serving cherry pie along with lyrics like “You say you need a cup of sugar, babe” and "Come taste my cherry pie" top off this sonic concoction that would make a diabetic tremble, if not dance their way to the medicine cabinet, reaching for the Metformin.
“Cherry Pie” was inspired by Aviana’s grandmother’s vegan cherry pie, a delicacy Aviana says she drunkenly ate in the kitchen one night when the song’s chorus dawned on her. The single, the first from her forthcoming funk inspired project Hotline, signals a musical shift for the artist, who last year released her heartbreak laden album Late Bloom , a mid-tempo jazz inspired affair that saw her play to packed houses at AvantGarden and Axelrad.
“I wanted to go from giving this heartfelt side of me for Late Bloom and then to this new ‘Okay, now it's time to party,’” says Aviana on trading the Amy Winehouse meets Jorja Smith aesthetic for the musical intersection where Parliament meets The O’Jays. “Let's get down, let's have some fun.”
Frankie and the Psychosphere, Indigo
There’s a hypnotic flow to Frankie and the Psychosphere’s debut EP Indigo. It fluidly navigates its own peaks and valleys, ebbing and flowing from tides high and low, with gifted songwriting nuanced beyond what you might expect from an artist’s first outing. The set’s titular track hypnotizes and haunts with Frankie’s John Mayer-esque guitar playing and soulful vocals. Album highlight “Lips of Gold” is the kind of song you might hear at a day time ACL set fraught with overcast, cautiously celebratory, still unafraid to revel in uplift. “Gold” meets its opposite soon after with the crushing “Reflections,” a song that could easily be playlisted alongside Lord Huron, whose chorus pines: “My tears fall deep in tornadoes, reflect in the way I feel / Broken hearts instead of my pupils remember the way I long to feel.”
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The 26-year-old, who worked with local staple John Allen Stephens on the record, says his struggles with relationships and mental illness were sources of inspiration for the EP, a project that was in the making for around two years.
“I was diagnosed with general depression and anxiety. I think around the time that these songs were taking shape, I just had this huge fear that for some reason I might be bipolar, even though I've never actually been diagnosed. But I think those feelings of hot and cold and back and forth up and down, I think around that time, those were very real things for me. I think I’ve definitely gotten marginally better since then because I've kind of learned what environment I need to be in or things I need to do for myself to keep my mind right,” says Frankie.
“That was a really scary thing and I think that that's why Indigo really resonated with me.”